The Relevant Woman

The psychological effects of pregnancy complications.

Posted Apr 08, 2012

A few days ago, I read an article about labor and delivery complications in an online pregnancy magazine. The article had a subheading that said that most complications sound scarier than they actually are. Following that, an OB was quoted as saying that most complications “are irrelevant” because they do not impact the health of the baby or the mother. This article offended me as a woman, as a researcher of postpartum depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms, and as a woman who experienced labor and delivery complications.

Labor and delivery complications are not irrelevant

Women who experience labor and delivery complications are at an increased risk for postpartum depression and often experience symptoms such as a sad mood that lasts for as long as two weeks, decreased interest in activities, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, worthlessness or excessive guilt, feeling slowed down or agitated, difficulty concentrating, and even thoughts of suicide.  Women who have experienced labor and delivery complications often report feelings of failure and incompetence as a woman and a mother.  Further, labor and delivery complications can have a real psychological impact on the mother, the mother’s relationship with her significant other, and her relationship with the baby. 

Stating that complications are irrelevant if they have not influenced the health of the baby or mother conveys the idea that women are incubators and as long as the incubator continues to function and produces a high quality product, all is good.  It entirely ignores the woman’s psychological experience of the complications and the long-term psychological impact of the complications.  I have no way of knowing if this OB was accurately quoted or whether the quote was taken out of context (as sometimes happens in articles)  but as it was stated in the article, it removed the human aspect of women and boiled them down to their health.  A woman is not simply a walking and breathing uterus!

Complications don’t just sound scary, they are scary

The idea that these complications sound scarier than they are invalidates the experience of the millions of women who were terrified during these complications. As a woman who experienced complications during delivery, I can tell you, they do not just sound scary, they are scary. They can produce feelings of terror, helplessness, and horror. Many women fear for the lives of their baby and themselves when having complications. 

Labor and delivery complications are traumas and can cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, such as emotional numbing, distress at reminders of the trauma, avoidance of thoughts and feeling associated with the trauma, inability to recall aspects of the trauma, decreased interest in activities, feeling detached from others, difficulty falling or staying asleep, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.  Women can dissociate during these events, mentally checking out of them when the terror overwhelms them. 

Many women feel robbed of the experience of a “normal” delivery and as though they were too drugged out or emotionally checked out to experience the joy of the moment of their baby’s birth.  The experience is also terrifying for significant others who helplessly watch their wives and girlfriends endure invasive and painful procedures or who fear for the life of their baby. 


Women often do not talk about their psychological reactions to the complications, experiencing shame that they have not “gotten over it” and continued feelings of failure as a mother because of their distress. Feelings of isolation and inferiority to other women who had “normal” deliveries are common. Few women who experienced complications are made aware of the high rates of postpartum depression and posttraumatic stress symptoms following labor and delivery complications. This contributes to women’s views that they are alone or that there is something wrong with them for continuing to experience distress after something as common as a C-section. 

What these women need is understanding and support, not to be invalidated. I am surprised and disappointed that a pregnancy magazine would publish something so invalidating to women and that a female doctor would use such terminology as “irrelevant” to describe the terrifying experience of labor and delivery complications. I believe that the goal of the article was to be reassuring to pregnant women that even if a complication were to occur, it would be unlikely that it would impact their health or the health of their baby. But complications do sometimes impact women’s health and the health of the baby. And stating that complications sound scarier than they are or that complications “are irrelevant” sets up women for a difficult adjustment if they do experience a complication.

To the millions of women who have experienced labor and delivery complications, you are not alone and your experience was far from irrelevant. There are many websites, online groups, and weekly Twitter chats for women with postpartum depression and even groups for women who are currently on bedrest or experiencing pregnancy complications. Below are just a few organizations and websites that might be helpful. 

Postpartum depression links

Pregnancy bed rest links


About the Author

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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